Video Games, The Media and Me

 

I’m in the mood for a bit of a moan and in the process I am likely to make a number of sweeping statements about games, gamers, the mainstream media, and the public in general and do not intend on offering any solutions. This is merely an act of catharsis. Already slightly annoyed? I know I certainly am.

I consider myself tolerant and patient, relatively anyway. I have come to accept that common sense is not as prevalent as the phrase would suggest, and have learnt to ignore people and situations accordingly. However, when it comes to the portrayal of video games in the media, be it print, radio, TV, news or advertising, I do tend to get a little wound-up. I can be merrily hurling insults at X Factor contestants on a Saturday evening (I enjoyed that show far more than I’m comfortable with), only to have my viewing displeasure ruined by a Nintendo advert showing three people playing the same DS, or four idiots playing with PS Move, having the kind of "banter" that gives me chest pains. Tolerant indeed.

My personal issues with Nintendo commercials aside, video games still suffer an unbalanced and at times rough treatment in the media. I appreciate that all new forms of entertainment are liable to take their lumps before establishing their place and style in the press, and although we have been playing games for the best part of 40 years, it’s only been in the last decade that they have demanded the attention of society as a whole. Yet I’m still left disappointed and a little bitter when I turn to the culture supplement of my daily newspaper and video games are nowhere to be seen. It would seem that there is no space amongst the CD, movie, theatre and literature reviews for my past-time of choice.

Why did we get stuck with the bloody steering wheels?

When the subject isn’t being ignored entirely it often falls prey to lazy journalism centred on the debatable premise that they are corrupting our youth and devoid of any redeemable qualities. Enter a recent BBC breakfast time call-in, where a concerned viewer lamented the violence her 10 year old child was witnessing in Call of Duty – Black Ops. Predictably, the presenters nodded away in judgmental agreement, failing to raise the obvious question: why on earth did you let your 10 year old get his hands on a game that is clearly labelled as being suitable for 18 years and over?

It is clear that the mainstream media still struggles with how best to cover and portray video games and gaming culture. The long held belief that it is the past time of boys and socially inept shut-ins is at odds with the increasingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary; that people of all ages and walks of life play video games, be they console, PC, portable, or browser based. This identity crisis presents a dilemma for non specialist media, proving difficult to pigeonhole within the established order of things. However, this does not excuse the lack of basic research of many an attempt. As the following example would suggest, taken form Radio 1's Video Games Week, research is not always a prerequisite for reporting on video games.

"At number 10, It’s an online game. It’s very popular. It's Half Life, specifically Half-Life 2, which is set some time in the near future after the nuclear apocalypse - as it always is. It’s a roleplaying game on your PC, like World of Warcraft, but not as fantastical. And you basically have to survive and earn as many points as possible. Some people live on Half-Life, like spend half their lives on it. It was the first online game where people started hiring other people to play for them while they were at work. That actually happens."

No DJ Treble T, it does not. I accept that as a long-time gamer, who particularly savours telling people that they are wrong, I am far more likely to seek-out such gaffes than the average reader, listener or viewer. Still, it does make you wonder why simple and easily researched facts go astray time and time again and why the topic seems to attract such ineptness. I recently stumbled upon a far less embarrassing, yet equally glaring error in The Times. An article about Microsoft's Kinnect listed Sony's Move as a forthcoming release and speculated as to how it would eventually fair against Kinnect. However, at the time of press the PS Move had already been in the shops for the best part of two months. 

"It’s a roleplaying game on your PC, like World of Warcraft, but not as fantastical." Fuck off is it.

At times I am guilty of being too defensive of my hobby and unwilling to listen to reasonable criticism, a fault with which I’m sure many gamers can sympathize. The fact that some of us still act like objectionable children when the artistic merits of video games are questioned betrays our underlying insecurities with the medium and misses the point of why we should care in the first place if Shadow of the Colossus is art (its not art, its a video game). Such impulsive reactions may be traced back to the mishandling of games in the mainstream media, which makes those who care about them that much more protective. It’s a vicious cycle from which we are yet to emerge, and one that I recently fell into. Late last year I missed a rather interesting, perhaps even balanced episode of the TV show Panorama which looked into games, mostly MMORPGs, causing compulsive behaviour. This was no oversight on my part. I purposefully avoided it as my gut reaction was that it was going to wind me up and make me cringe.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. At times I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of the odd TV spot, such as an excellent five minute segment on the BBC investigating why Western games struggle in Japan. It was a thought provoking and thoroughly well researched piece, which included interviews with a number of industry figures. The recent success of Call of Duty Black Ops also generated a great deal of positive coverage as a number of news agencies picked up on its popularity and huge sales, instead of running the tired "here comes another killing-sim" angle. Even Fidel Castro’s fury at being featured in Black Ops Cold War storyline was reported slightly tongue in cheek, instead of the fervour usually reserved for violent games.

But why are these examples still the exception rather than the rule? For all the good done by these interesting shows and articles, it is quickly unravelled by the kind of drivel and baseless attacks churned out, in most cases, by the tabloid press. Tabloids will still tap into society’s mistrust of games to stir up trouble. That renowned purveyor of truth, The Daily Star, earlier last year claimed that Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto) were developing GTA - Rothbury, based on the tragic events of Raol Moat's killing spree in Cumbria. They even went to the trouble of mocking-up a sleeve and interviewing family members of the deceased. The Daily Star was forced to retract the story, admitting in print that it was entirely fabricated and ordered to pay compensation to Rockstar, who presumably spent it on crack and whores. Despite this full and embarrassing retraction, many readers will remember the sensationalist original article and not the apology, forever viewing Rockstar as a group of immoral bastards looking to prosper off the back of tragedy, and failing to remember that the Daily Star is as reliable as courier services come December. Damage done.


Plumbing the depths

So what can we learn from this state of affairs? I’m not too sure really. Having read this far, you would be forgiven for expecting some sort of conclusion, or a definitive statement on the matter, but I’m afraid you are to be disappointed. I offer no solution, but I do now feel slightly less irate.

If we allow ourselves to be optimistic for a moment, perhaps 2011 will be the year that video games and the media finally get on. Frankly, I'd be content if Nintendo would just stop making commercials with three people crowded around the same DS. I won’t be holding my breath, and I suspect neither will you.

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